Modesto, Turlock irrigation districts take key step toward new Don Pedro license

jholland@modbee.comNovember 26, 2013 

  • KEY DATES

    2011: The Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts file an initial notice for relicensing of Don Pedro Reservoir, first licensed in 1966.

    2012: Detailed studies begin on various issues, mainly fish in the Tuolumne River below Don Pedro.

    Tuesday: The districts file a draft license application to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, launching a new round of public comment.

    Jan. 16: A public meeting will be held on recent studies related to the reservoir and river, 9 a.m. at MID headquaters, 1231 11th St., Modesto. The studies include salmon and steelhead spawning sites, bald eagles, water temperature and how the reservoir would be operated for water storage, hydropower and other uses under the new license.

    April 30: The final application is scheduled to be filed with FERC.

    2016: The commission could issue a license with new conditions on fish and other concerns.

    Online information

    MID and TID: www.

    donpedro-relicensing.com

    FERC: www.ferc.gov

A massive set of documents traveled across cyberspace Tuesday, laying out plans by the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts to keep using Don Pedro Reservoir.

They filed a draft application for a new license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees reservoirs that have hydroelectric plants.

The filing launches a new round of public comment on Don Pedro, mainly on how much water should be released into the lower Tuolumne River to benefit salmon and other fish. Environmentalists would like to see much more than is provided under the current license, issued in 1966. Others note the continuing need for farm and domestic water from the reservoir, along with power.

“Water is the lifeblood of agriculture,” said Ron Peterson, president of the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau. “Without it, we’re not going to be able to continue.”

MID and TID launched the relicensing process in 2011 and had until Sunday to submit the draft application. It involves 38 detailed studies on fish, recreation, economics and other issues. The districts hope to have a new license by 2016, with conditions on fish and other matters. The term is not yet set.

“We remain really concerned about the salmon population in the Tuolumne,” said Patrick Koepele, deputy executive director of the Tuolumne River Trust. “It’s still far below where it should be.”

The application was sent electronically to FERC headquarters in Washington, D.C., and can be viewed at its website, www.ferc.gov.

The districts expect to spend about $50 million on the relicensing. TID is paying about two-thirds of the cost, reflecting its share of the reservoir, and MID the rest.

Tuesday’s filing is a milestone in the history of TID, which was founded in June 1887, and MID, which followed six weeks later. They were the first irrigation districts created under the Wright Act, which sought to put California rivers to use.

The districts completed the small La Grange Dam in 1893 and followed it with the larger Old Don Pedro Dam in 1923. The latter was put under by the even bigger New Don Pedro Dam, finished in 1971.

The reservoir is the state’s sixth-largest, holding up to 2.03 million acre-feet of water. It supplies about 149,000 acres of farmland in TID, which stretches to the Merced River on the south and the San Joaquin River on the west. MID irrigates about 58,000 acres just north of TID and also has a water-treatment plant that provides half of the supply for the city of Modesto.

The districts rely on Don Pedro for cheap hydropower, though it has been a small proportion of their total power supply in recent decades. MID has about 113,000 electricity customers, TID about 98,000.

Don Pedro also provides flood control and is a popular place for boating, fishing and other flat-water recreation.

The studies deal primarily with how a new license would affect the Chinook salmon population, including water flows, temperature and spawning gravels. Other studies involve topics such as vegetation and wildlife on the banks, historical and archaeological sites and the socioeconomic benefits of Don Pedro.

One study looks at how the reservoir has become a winter home to once-endangered bald eagles. Another explores how much water is needed to float canoes and other small boats on the 40 miles of river from La Grange to Modesto.

Although the relicensing has brought diverse views on how Don Pedro should be managed, people involved in the process said they hope for compromise.

“We think the dam’s operations can be modified in a way that the river habitat can be improved and we can have a healthy ag economy,” Koepele said.

Peterson said he hopes “we can come up with an agreement that will satisfy all of the parties involved.”

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or (209) 578-2385.

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